On the 24th of February, my husband and I went to the London Coliseum to watch the English National Opera’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera Iolanthe, which the press release and programme notes mention is the first after 40 years. It was a packed matinee performance and it didn’t disappoint as the audience laughed along to the witty dialogue, physical comedy and catchy tunes with a bit of audience participation thrown in.
Iolanthe or The Peer and Peri is one of many collaborations between composer Sir Arthur Sullivan and writer Sir W.S. Gilbert which included The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, The Mikado and Patience. In Iolanthe, the title character is a fairy recalled from her exile after breaking the law that forbade a fairy from consorting with a mortal. The sentence was originally death but the Fairy Queen had this commuted to exile on condition that she never sees her husband again. Iolanthe and her husband part but not before they manage to have a son – Strephon – who becomes a shepherd and who has no idea who his father is.
Twenty five years later, Strephon has fallen in love with Phyllis, a shepherdess, and proposed marriage to her but she is ward of the Chancery under the Lord Chancellor and he has forbidden the match: declaring that Strephon is not a suitable match for Phyllis. There is also the added complication that the Lord Chancellor wants to make Phyllis his wife and further complicating matters is that several members of the House of Lords are also smitten with the young shepherdess. Strephon asks his mother for help and due to mistaken identity, an angry Phyllis breaks off the engagement and declares that she will consider marrying either Lord Tolloller or Lord Mountararat.
More chaos ensures as the Fairy Queen causes the election of Strephon as a Member of Parliament with his proposed bills passing through Parliament. One bill particularly alarms the House of Lords – a bill that would open the upper house based on merit to those who pass a competitive examination. The peers plead with the fairies to lift the curse but love is in the air as the fairies fall in love with the peers. Meanwhile Strephon learns that his father is the Lord Chancellor and Iolanthe risks death by revealing herself to the Lord Chancellor who is surprised to learn to his wife is still alive and that he has a son. The Fairy Queen arrives to carry out the punishment on Iolanthe for having violated the terms of her exile and then realises that she will have to carry out the same punishment on all the fairies. Everyone is saved by the Lord Chancellor who makes a legal intervention by adding a single word to existing fairy law – “every fairy shall die who doesn’t marry a mortal.” With this, the Fairy Queen agrees and the peers rush off to join the fairies in fairy land.
Gilbert and Sullivan used their operas to poke fun at anyone and everyone in British society and there were no sacred cows for this duo. Everyone was fair game – politicians, the army, the aristocracy, the royals, civil servants, the law, fads and ideologies. With Iolanthe, both men returned to two targets that they had previously lampooned; the aristocracy and the law. One main theme that recurs time and again in Iolanthe is the absurdity of the hereditary system as embodied in the House of Lords. As one of the main characters, Lord Mountararat sings:
When Britain really ruled the waves –
(In good Queen Bess’s time)
The House of Peers made no pretence
To intellectual eminence,
Or scholarship sublime;
Yet Britain won her proudest bays
In good Queen Bess’s glorious days!
When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,
As every child can tell,
The House of Peers, throughout the war,
Did nothing in particular,
And did it very well:
Yet Britain set the world ablaze
In good King George’s glorious days!
And while the House of Peers withholds
Its legislative hand,
And noble statesmen do not itch
To interfere with matters which
They do not understand,
As bright will shine Great Britain’s rays
As in King George’s glorious days!
The song itself belies Lord Mountararat’s self-awareness that he has reached where he is due to accident of birth. Not through hard work or pluck but simply because of who his antecedents were. By this point in real life the House of Commons was slowly opening up to men who had reached Parliament due to hard work and merit but the House of Lords remained entrenched in their ways and were resistant to any attempts at reform. When Strephon proposes to open the House of Lords to competitive examination, the number between the peers and Strephon seems to read as a premonition of the showdown between the Lords and the Commons that resulted into the Parliament Act of 1911:
Young Strephon is the kind of lout
We do not care a fig about!
We cannot say
What evils may
Result in consequence
But lordly vengeance will pursue
All kinds of common people who
Oppose our views,
Or boldly choose
To offer us offence.
FAIRIES, PHYLLIS, and STREPHON:
With Strephon for your foe, no doubt,
A fearful prospect opens out,
And who shall say
What evils may
Result in consequence?
A hideous vengeance will pursue
All noblemen who venture to
Oppose his views,
Or boldly choose
To offer him offence.
Of course in the opera, love conquers all as a change in the law allows the fairies and the mortals to marry each other without any fear of death. In real life, the peerage itself – already under assault by financial crises – would be dealt with more blows that perhaps not even Gilbert and Sullivan could have ever foreseen. However if both men were alive during the first half of the twentieth century, they would have certainly have found more material to lampoon the aristocracy and perhaps even P.G. Wodehouse would struggle to compete with Gilbert’s dialogue and Sullivan’s music.
However back to the ENO’s production – the acting and singing were spot on and under the direction of Cal MacCrystal who recently directed last year’s film hit Paddington 2, the acting and singing were anchored by touches of physical comedy, just enough but not overdoing it. This production has also remained faithful to how Gilbert and Sullivan envisioned it and mercifully, we have been spared any references to current events. Instead what we have is simply over two hours of sublime music and comedy. I hope that we won’t have to wait another 40 years for another staging of this classic.
The English National Opera’s porduction of Iolanthe is on at the London Coliseum until 7 April. For more information, please click on this link: https://www.eno.org/operas/iolanthe/ and https://www.eno.org/whats-on/iolanthe/